Our view is that, for some professional schools, rankings make some sense. Professions like medicine, law, and business draw on a common body of knowledge and set of skills, and involve a great deal of peer consultation. Some schools teach this material better than others do, and are better able to introduce their students to professional networks. Having an MBA from Wharton or Harvard really does make a difference in the corporate world.
In many graduate fields of study, however, rankings have limited merit. Programs in social sciences and the liberal arts vary so widely that it is impractical to try to compare them in any meaningful way. Even peer review is problematic. Two historians may well have completely different ideas of what the five best history programs in the country are.
Even if you are looking at a field where rankings are useful, our advice is to take them with a grain of salt. Critics make a good point when they say that ranking methodologies pay too much attention to what can be measured and too little attention to what should be measured. Moreover, just because other people think well of a program is no guarantee that it will provide you with the education you want or need. Having a master’s in public policy from a program that stresses quantitative analysis probably may not help you much if your goal is to become a presidential speechwriter.
Remember, you’re going to graduate school for your reasons – not those of anybody else. The only standard you should measure programs by is whether they serve your interests, goals, and needs.